What is Big Data and Human Privacy?




Yuval Noah Harari, a famous historian, posits, “Accumulation of data in the hands of governments, companies, and organizations renders human privacy vulnerable.” Spying on citizens has been present in human society from the very beginning. Once KGB, CIA, MOSSAD, and RAW used human capital to invade human privacy and spy on others. Resources at their disposal were limited. However, with time and penetration of Artificial Intelligence and technology came sophisticated means of invading privacy. Since the technological revolution and boom of social media apps, spying has reached its zenith. Now companies know you better than you do. Your habits, opinions about socio-political issues, biases, and prejudices are known to these big data companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Instagram. Especially in the post-pandemic world, the challenges of big data to human privacy are raising eyebrows.

During COVID-19, governments, in the bid of controlling human mobilization, began human surveillance to trace human contact. Particularly governments in some South East Asian countries such as South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan ordered their citizenry to wear bracelets. Through these bracelets, government agencies could easily track their citizens to know their trail.

However, experts express their fear that this trend will continue to prevail even after the pandemic and will become a new normal.

Historical examples of pandemics substantiate these concerns when the trends that were introduced during emergency situations such as war or plague became a permanent part of society. But given the amount of data that is being used today and its ability to reach every aspect of human life, these concerns raise critical privacy, security, and ethical issue, which if left unmet may rob humans of privacy, freedom, and liberty.

What is Big Data?

Although there is no unanimous and universal definition of big data, the exponential availability, growth, variety, and speed with which data is produced and transferred is called big data. As per the report of IBM, around 2.5 billion Gigabytes of data are created daily around the globe. To define big data more comprehensively, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the research analyst Gartner have defined big data as encompassing three dimensions; Volume, Velocity, and Variety. The flood of big data is not limited to original data only. Instead, information about electronic transactions, personal information, and highly sensitive information comes into the domain of big data.

How Big Data Invades Human Privacy

Harari in his famous book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century remarks, “Humans have become hackable animals.” Now privacy which was once rendered very sacred and subjective no longer exists. All your private information such as name, date of birth, address, and most importantly your views and ideas are available to data companies. This accumulation of data is creating a Digital Dictatorship. Due to this, liberty, free will, and freedom that have been the essence of human society for the last three centuries are in acute danger.

Furthermore, nothing escapes from the scope and reach of big data. The latter is also available at the click of your finger. Fifty years ago, KGF does not have the capacity or resources to spy on every Russian, nor could the CIA encroach upon the personal lives of American citizens. But now since 70 to 80 person, people are using the Internet or their data is available online, every aspect of human privacy is under threat. Harari calls this a shift from “over the skin” surveillance to “under the skin,” surveillance. Now all your views, ideas, and prejudices are open to exploitation. Companies or governments now can use your private data for their own vested interests or engineer their electoral campaigns. Even your business ideas or innovative discourse are no longer safe. Imagine you own a packaging company, and all your innovative designs for boxes are stolen by hacking your email. Not only will it bring loss to your business but it also publicizes your sensitive information. So, big data is invading the privacy of individuals in multiple ways.

Free Will is no Longer Free

For centuries, human decisions are driven by their free will. A customer has always been right. Even religious texts endorse free will as the main motivator of human decision-making. But human will is hardly free since the rise of big data. Since data companies know your better than you do, they bring only that data in front of you that suits your intellectual ideals and opinion. For example, you are streaming videos on YouTube. The company knows your emotions in favor of the video related to the Holocaust. By knowing your tilt, the videos it will show to you will directly or indirectly be related to Jews or Holocaust. After spending an hour on YouTube you think you watched those videos by your free will. But in fact, YouTube algorithms hacked you and showed only those videos. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

In the future, the time will come when you will be induced to make all your decisions through Artificial Intelligence or algorithms. Because of this, our society is experiencing a philosophical crisis that will further deepen in the future if necessary measures are not taken.
A Way Forward

In order to meet this extraordinary situation, governments must avoid as much as possible to stop the accumulation of data in a few hands. Only public institutions should be allowed to gather information. Even with this data, governments must come up with policy formulation to maintain a balance between security and privacy. Robust laws and regulations must be tabled to avoid any encroachment. Besides humans try to know themselves and invest time in exploring their true beings. The more they would know themselves, the lesser chances of their exploitation. Responsibilities as a whole fall on technologists, regulators, governments, NGOs, and society to protect human privacy. Otherwise, humans would be exposed to the extreme danger of privacy theft.

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